Northwestern girls trounce short-handed Yellow Jackets

Ask and you shall receive -- as long as your players realize what's at stake.

Northwestern coach John Bramlett got what he wished for Monday in a long-postponed match with Fort Mill -- a solid win that set up a crucial game tonight. After the Lady Trojans whipped the undermanned Lady Yellow Jackets 54-35, Bramlett and his squad could finally turn their focus to what's on the horizon.

Northwestern and York tangle tonight in a battle for sole possession of second place in Region 3-AAAA. With South Pointe running away with the region title, the race in Region 3-AAAA has come down to the runner-up prize -- at least one home playoff game.

And Northwestern (8-10, 7-3 Region 3-AAAA) and York (14-5, 7-3) each know the winner tonight will be sitting pretty.

"I was worried about this game," Bramlett said. "(Fort Mill didn't) have anything to lose. But tonight, on the line is second place -- that's a home playoff game.

"I don't know when was the last time Northwestern had a home playoff game."

The Lady Trojans had to first worry about Fort Mill (3-16, 0-10). The Lady Jackets' record didn't fool anyone.

Despite playing with only a three-man bench -- Karlie Smith is still wearing a walking boot on her right foot and point guard Lisa Nichols spent the evening at home, fighting the flu -- the Lady Jackets gave Northwestern all it could handle. When Courtney Grainger stripped Gabrielle Bennett under her own goal and pushed in a layup in the second quarter, the Jackets only trailed 24-22.

But Bennett, the Lady Trojans' steadily improving weapon in the post, didn't let the flub bother her. Once Kelia Shelton got her the ball just before halftime, Bennett backed into position and forced in her own layup.

Bennett ended up with several of those buckets, leading the Lady Trojans with 14 points and snaring 10 rebounds. It was her fourth straight double-double.

"I could be playing much better," Bennett said modestly. "I could get a lot more open. But we're all contributing and we're playing much better."

Fort Mill never backed down but Bennett's shot before halftime seemed to set Northwestern's pace. After trading baskets at the third quarter's beginning, Shelton stole an inbounds pass and cruised in for a layup.

Northwestern scored the next nine points and kicked off a 22-4 run, breaking the game open.

"We are short-handed, but we're not going to make excuses," said Fort Mill coach Todd Bowser, who's fielding one of the most competitive teams in the league but has yet to grab that elusive first region win. "Jenna (White) stepped up and ran the point guard as well as we could possibly run it. We just gave up too many second-chance opportunities and (Bennett), she probably played one of her best games all year."

The win in hand, Bramlett congratulated his team and looked forward to tonight. Fatigue might be a factor -- tonight is the Trojans' third game in five days, while York has had a normal weekend off -- but Bramlett said the prize awaiting the winner is more than enough to overcome being tired.

"The last time we played York, we had a lead with under a minute in the game, lost in overtime," Bramlett said. "So ... "

"This is going to be like the biggest game of the season, so I'm looking to win," Bennett said.

Fort Mill 10 12 4 9 -- 35

Northwestern 15 11 15 13 -- 54